The Tuatha Dé Dannan: The Origins of Irish Fairies and Elves

In a world that often dismisses elves, fairies, banshees, and werewolves as mere fantasy, it’s essential to delve into the rich tapestry of ancient cultures to unearth the truth behind these mystical creatures. Among the various European regions, including Germany, Scandinavia, and Ireland, tales of extraordinary beings have persisted through the ages.

While skepticism has shrouded the origins of elves, recent scientific and historical analyses of Irish folklore have shed light on the existence of these enigmatic beings. This article explores the captivating history of The Tuatha Dé Dannan the precursors to Irish fairies and elves.

The Etymology of ‘Elf’

The Tuatha Dé Dannan
Meadow Elves” by Nils Blommér from 1850. ( Source )

To clarify, the term ‘elf’ is not native to Ireland; instead, it originates from Common Germanic, the precursor language of modern German, English, and several Scandinavian languages. ‘Elf’ initially encompassed all fairies but eventually evolved to refer specifically to smaller, supernatural beings with remarkable powers. These entities were often associated with shapeshifting and great wealth. In ancient Germanic traditions, distinctions were made between male and female elves, as well as good and evil ones, although such nuances have faded over time.

Unraveling the ‘Elvish’ Masters of Ireland

The Tuatha Dé Dannan
J. C. Leyendecker’s illustration for “The Arrival of the Sons of Miled” in T. W. Rolleston’s “Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race” from 1911. ( Source )

Legend tells of six waves of ‘masters of Ireland,’ each linked in some way to the Biblical tale of Noah and the Flood. While the accuracy of these legends remains uncertain, they reveal a unique aspect of equality, with women playing prominent roles in each wave. The final wave, known as the Milesians, consisted of Celts who arrived in Ireland from Spain during the 4th century BC. They displaced the inhabitants known as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, who were the forebears of Irish fairies.

Originally referred to as the Tuatha Dé, these people became the Tuatha Dé Dannan, or ‘People of the goddess Danu,’ after their primary deity. Another group of settlers, the Fomorians, were contemporaries of the Tuatha Dé Dannan and are portrayed in Celtic myths as giants and sea raiders. Some theories even suggest that the Fomorians were remnants of a forgotten Carthaginian trading outpost. The survivors of each wave of settlers faced enslavement by the Fomorians, cementing their reputation as malevolent beings, akin to ‘bad elves.’

As time passed, the actions of these groups took on mythical dimensions. For example, when the Tuatha Dé Dannan arrived in Ireland from the Northern Isles, they burned their ships to eliminate any thoughts of retreat, creating a vast cloud of dark smoke. By the 11th century, their arrival was depicted as a dramatic event in ‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland.’

The Enigmatic Tuatha Dé Dannan

The Tuatha Dé Dannan
Stephen Reid’s depiction of Oisín and Niamh journeying to Tír na nÓg (“Land of the Youth”) – an otherworld inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Dannan, in T. W. Rolleston’s “The High Deeds of Finn. ( Source )

The Tuatha Dé Dannan’s lineage can be traced back to the Nemedians, a group that originally inhabited Ireland but later settled in northern Europe after a devastating battle against the Fomorians. Upon their return to Ireland, they became the Tuatha Dé Dannan, known for their mastery of science, magic, and civilization.

These beings were not gods or goddesses, nor were they simply fairy folk. They belonged to a druidic race with a profound understanding of the natural world. They possessed knowledge of curative and magical properties of plants, excelled in craftsmanship, music, warfare, and poetry. Remarkably, women held nearly equal civil rights and actively participated in all aspects of society, including diplomacy and conflict resolution.

The Divine Aesthetic of the Tuatha Dé Dannan

The summit of Knocknarea in Ireland, crowned by the cairn of the fairy queen Meadb. ( Source )

Evidence of the Tuatha Dé Dannan’s existence can still be found in Ireland today. The magnificent barrows and intricately carved tumuli they left behind are a testament to their wisdom and divine status. These pre-Celtic beings were described as tall and slender, with fair skin, delicate features, and striking blue, gray, or green eyes. Their long golden hair was said to have the power to captivate mortals, resembling depictions of elves in modern times.

A Continuation of the Tuatha Dé Dannan

An artwork titled ‘The Elven Circle’ from 1905, often attributed to Kate Greenaway. ( Source )

When the Milesians arrived and overthrew the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a compromise was reached. The conquerors claimed the land above ground, while the Tuatha Dé Dannan were relegated to preside over the lands below, known as the Sidhe, which includes earthworks and barrows scattered throughout Ireland. These divine beings were forced to live in seclusion, emerging occasionally in Irish folklore as fairies, the People of the Sidhe, or the Little People.

In the book ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization,’ Thomas Cahill suggests that the term ‘little people’ served as a euphemism to mask fear of the unfamiliar and larger beings. It’s even posited that this phenomenon reflects Irish guilt over the exploitation of indigenous peoples.

As Christian monks recorded the legends of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, these beings took on divine attributes, albeit non-Christian ones. In time, they became fairies and eventually elves. In reality, the pre-Celtic people who survived the Celtic conquest likely intermingled with the Celts, shaping the Irish culture we know today.


The Tuatha Dé Dannan, once a druidic race with unparalleled insights into the natural world, left an indelible mark on Irish folklore. Their ethereal beauty and mysterious legacy continue to captivate our imaginations. While they may have been relegated to the realm of myth and fantasy, their presence in Irish history is undeniable.

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